Portsmouth The Corsetry Capital: Feminist Force or Whiff of Desperation?

Image: Emil Larsson. Body corset worn by Madonna, Blond Ambition World Tour for the exhibition The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier

Tessa Ditner examines Portsmouth’s credentials as the historic corsetry capital of the world.

Corsets. A frivolous topic isn’t it? It’s like writing about the politics of Dairy Milks. Yet corsetry from the point of view of the city of Portsmouth isn’t the same topic as say, looking at film corsetry, 18th Century Marie-Antoinette corsetry, or corsetry in the haute couture studios in Paris. The reason being that the word ‘corset’ – like all words – doesn’t mean anything. Or rather it means lots of different things, depending on where you’re standing in time and space.

To Andy Warhol, wearing a surgical corset was a medical obligation following getting shot. For Mistress Absolute it’s a part of her persona, an added reminder to her submissives that she’s as untouchable as the shiny objects on your mantel piece. For Dita von Teese, a corset is about reflective lighting and curves that you can see from further away on stage or in a large martini glass.

I started this research with my head full of Victorian tales of Portsmouth’s Spice Island prostitutes propositioning men in breaches; I had just read William Sutton’s latest Victorian crime novel. It features a former prostitute riding on a horse in elegant gowns, set in an age when clothes could be wielded as a weapon to redefine one’s social standing. But for Portsmouth, fame as the corsetry capital comes far later than the Victorian era, with records of corsetry factories mushrooming only in the 1900s (see list below). Indeed when I ask the Portsmouth history library and Ian Voller, co-owner of Vollers (established in 1899) about the history of corsetry, both define the corset not as a garment that defines or disguises your social status, but simply as an everyday undergarment.

“99% of women wore corsets in those days,” Ian Voller says. When I ask him what the historical difference between a sex worker’s corset and a high society lady might have been, he hazards: “Maybe the material would be different?”

As Winifred Cornick, a runner and machinist between 1934-1946 quoted in Fingers to the Bone puts it: “Most of them were just a peach colour, not much white… but the fancy bits you see, they always put ribbon bows on them and little rosy bits. It was the decoration that made it look something.”

That’s when it hits me that for Portsmouth’s corsetry industry, corsets were basically the thing that kept your boobs from drooping and your tights from falling. The bit in between the breasts and the hold-ups wasn’t the main bit. The reason for having lacing in the back of a corset wasn’t so your maid could tug and tug until you faint from fabulous-looking waist compression, but because of the late arrival in fashion of the button and zip.

So why Portsmouth? Old newspaper clippings from 1949 reveal celebratory articles over the opening of a new corset factory after bombings. One newspaper article praised the factory owners for their new building, reporting parts of the owner’s speech at the opening press luncheon and showing a photograph containing a huge amount of (all male) smiling faces.

“500 people of whom 90% will be women (…) will be carrying out their work in airy rooms admitting the maximum sunlight and air (…) decorated in peach and rose colours with cream ceiling”. This bizarre woman-as-pets description makes me wonder why the Portsmouth Industries journalist felt the need to point out paint colour and ventilation. What were conditions like before that being able to breathe was so exceptional?

Portsmouth employed 7000 women in the corsetry trade in Portsmouth, some of these women worked from home and received a ‘family wage’ as their children were roped into work as well. In The Portsmouth Corset Industry the conditions of corset-makers worked under are described: “Wages were miserably low and hours long. There would be fines for arriving late (…) Learners paid a deposit of 10% and receive no wages for some months.”

A stitcher and seamer between 1947-1955 Gwyneth Daly recounts “the noise from the machines – it made my head bad the first couple of days I was there. But my Mum said ‘Don’t tell the managers that’s what it was, tell him you had a bad cough,’ So I wasn’t allowed to say the noise of the machines made my head bad, in case I got the sack.”

Machinist between 1951-1957 Joyce Brown recalls “I do remember one person at Leethems… She worked on the eyelet machine and put an eyelet right through her finger, through the nail, that was really frightening… They had to carry her down, she passed out… I don’t really know the outcome of that but there was blood all over the place.”

As the Portsmouth Papers of July 1976 explains: “Stay and corset making exhibited the kind of localisation in Portsmouth associated with carpets in Kidderminster… yet curiously enough the association has never been popularly recognised.” The words ‘curiously enough’ stick out wonderfully in a piece of journalism. It’s like he is saying the exact opposite, that the real reason for this lack of association is because Portsmouth is ashamed, and the reason for this shame is because Portsmouth corsetry did not arise from an overzealous Jean Paul Gaultier designer type thrusting Madonna on stage, or post-punk Vivienne Westwood taking inspiration from the Wallace Collection, but as the result of financial desperation.

Sailors’ and soldier’s wives, while their husbands were on foreign service, received nothing for extended periods, despite having families to feed in Portsmouth; and of course these sailors and soldiers didn’t always come home. The process of helping out widows was done through a public fund, but as the Portsmouth Papers point out “the monies coming forward varied accord to the extent to which a ship caught the public imagination”.

I head to Portsmouth’s remaining corset factory, Vollers, to get more of an insight. Ian Voller isn’t just the descendant of Harry and Nelly Voller, but also of Sir John Thomas Rowlands, chairman of Leethems (Twilfit) Ltd, who was his great grandmother’s brother. Ian’s factory is a relatively small space compared to the huge spaces of times gone by. It isn’t currently busy with workers, but there are fleeces on the backs of chairs and joke teddy bears in silly clothes hanging from the wires over the sewing machines, like office workers in cubicles personalising their space. I ask Ian if Harry and Nelly could be considered sweatshop factory owners.

“It would have been hard work to work in those days,” he concedes. “But I associate sweatshops with unhygienic workplaces, child labour, cramped spaces and that was never the case.” I ask Ian the ‘why Portsmouth?’ question and he more or less agrees that it is down to Portsmouth’s naval ties and the women left behind. But he adds one element that hasn’t been fully highlighted: the demand for corsetry was huge, given that women across the world wore corsets as undergarments. What corset factory owners needed was a town with a lot of spare labour to mass produce. What they needed basically was machines.

“Remember that these women left behind would have had nothing to do,” Ian says, “there were no cars, people didn’t travel…” When pushed for a comparison, Ian doesn’t compare his corsets to haute-couture, in fact he says he’s not really into fashion. Instead when we talk of touching items to understand their quality and the craft behind the items, he compares his corsets to baked beans or Coca-Cola and that, for me, is so very Portsmouth today. No airs, no graces and yet some level of pride, craft and a definite love of history, as can be seen when you make your way into the Vollers office and find two Victorian corsets displayed there quite humbly, a few steps away from the computers and printer.

So what now? Now that both the demand and supply have been moulded into something else by time. Now that the word ‘corset’ has gone on to mean outerwear and anything else you want it to mean.

I present Ian with a series of what I see as corsets, tops that have featured in magazines over the last twenty years. To many of the images, he says simply ‘that’s not a corset’, such as in response to a series of metal rungs by Alexander McQueen inspired by tribal neck corsetry. About the famously outlandish corset created by Thierry Mugler in collaboration with Harley Davidson, Ian says: “Oh Thierry’s people contacted us a long time ago. It was to work on a project together.” He then can’t remember what came of it, as I hyperventilate at the words: ‘Thierry Mugler’s people’.

I show him some rubber Gaultier creations and he shakes his head: “We wouldn’t touch rubber.” I’m expecting a complaint about family values but it turns out it is actually because of the process: “rubber has to be glued and we sew.” Of my photographs of dresses containing corsets, he doesn’t balk at all, his wife, Corina, later explains that they do bridal and corset dresses as standard. He also doesn’t flinch at padding in corsetry including on the hips, but admits it will add to the price of the garment.

Vollers’ catalogues are hard bound books, unbelievable in our time of internet shopping. I feel like Vollers is stuck between two eras, because they mostly think of corsetry with the brain of their ancestors, even though the rest of us look at a slightly hard-shaped clothing on the top part of the body, and would call that a corset and not care whether it was made of metal or whale boning or paperclips.

So where are we? Or rather where is our city? Is corsetry a force for feminism? Should we worry that a whiff of desperation still clings to this city’s association? There are of course, wonderful quotes from the history books, corsetiers talking of camaraderie, of going on holiday together and leaving the kids with their men and women boasting of higher earnings than their husband in the dockyard.

But finally, I come across a quote from Maureen Cook, machinist between 1958-1971 saying “We did the medical things as well, like say if perhaps one person had had a breast off they would have, you know, put a false sort of one in, padded it out with one, but then that bit went sort of back down to another department, but we actually stitched them.” I think of Angelina Jolie, the world’s most beautiful feminist, standing on the red carpet in a leather corseted Versace dress post-double mastectomy. That’s when I decide that corsetry isn’t such a frivolous topic after all.


List of Corset Factories in Portsmouth from A Tale Of One City:

The 1924 edition of Kelly’s Street Directory lists the following under ‘Stay and Corset Makers’

  • Allen Edwin Charles, Coommon Street, Landport
  • Ash, Mrs F. O. (Spirella Corsetiere; renovations &c.), 4 Bedford Street,Southsea
  • Bayer Charles & Co. Ltd 22 & 28 St. Mary’s Road, Kingston, Landport
  • Bowden A. & Co. Purbeck Street,Portsea
  • Brown Walter, 35, 37 & Stamford St,Landport
  • Carss & Co. Ltd Victoria Factory, Cardigan Road, Landport
  • Chilcot and Williams, 102, 104 & 106 surrey Street, Landport
  • Clarke F. g. Ltd Telegraph Street, Southsea
  • Cole Miss, 16A Marmion Road, Southsea
  • Corner William & Co. 83 Blackfriars Road, Southsea
  • Fletcher William, jun. Limited (wholesale), Hay Street 16 & 17 Lion Terrace, Portsea
  • Hampshire Corset Co. (The), 106 Kingston Road, Landport
  • Holloway Madame, 227 Albert Road, Southsea
  • Izod Edwin & Son Ltd. Commercial Place & Jacobs Street, Landport
  • Lee Madame S. ; Workrooms, 3 Margate Road, Southsea
  • Leetham Ltd. Buckland Street, Landport; Landport Street, Landport;Cottage View, Landport; King Street, Landport ; 84 Highland Road, Eastney; & Mill Lane, Landport
  • Lopes Mrs. Alice (Spirella corsetiere), 133 Newport, Landport
  • Moorby Miss L. (Spirella corsetiere), 74 Laburnum Grove Landport
  • Plummer Henry, 12A Arundel Street, Landport
  • Voller & Co. 104, 108 & 110 Kingston Road, Landport & 143 Kingston Road, Southsea
  • Weingarten Brothers Ltd. All Saints Road, Landport

References and further reading:

  • ‘Fingers to the Bone’ Recollections of corset workers in Portsmouth edited by Sharon Lee and John Stedman
  • ‘The Portsmouth Corset Industry, Its Origins and Growth’ by W. Lewis Lasseter
  • A Tale Of One City http://www.ataleofonecity.portsmouth.gov.uk/topic/corset-making/

Photography by Emil Larsson.